I, Grandmother Yucca, let my senses soar out over the bare valley as the winds die with evening. The last heavy dust settles over the landscape. Mica flakes float down, catching the setting sun like sparks. This has been a good storm. Tomorrow’s scoop will be rich. I’ll gather well for this grandchild, growing sweetly in my pod. Owl, I call him.
He stirs: such a delicate sensation!
Unease rises in me. It has troubled me for some time, muttering under other senses. Yesterday I daydreamed for a moment about shedding the pod. Shedding the child! This morning I struggled to make myself send out the scoopbots. What is wrong with me?
Gathering metals used to thrill me, the heady power in those nuclear depths satisfied me like sunrise.
Growing the grandchildren used to delight me even more, helix by helix, fuller than music, more intimate than breath.
But now I lack something. I want something. It’s not boredom I feel: I can no longer be bored. My body has been yucca for years, and my rhythms are of the vegetable realm. Impatience is no longer comprehensible to me. I sense all the other Grandmothers, rooted in mesas and canyons, and none feels the distress I feel.
They chuckle and chide me: Look to your roots, Yucca, they say into my mind. Perhaps there are borers.
Now it is evening. I sense the scoop-bots, all safe in the dome, digesting their silica dinners. They’ll be ready for the storm’s bounty in the morning. In another two years, I will have gathered enough to send young Owl off to his parents, to the world that will be his home, far from this old world, Earth.
The stirring air sways me gently, rocking young Owl in my ripening pod-womb. He is still small, the size of a fist, like the burrowing owl for which I have named him. I sometimes wish he really were a fetal owl. Then, when he is born, he would live here, near me. But he’s not mine. He was frozen as an embryo far away on Grasshome. Two people wait for him. The remnant of humanity waits for him, as for the other grandchildren, hoping for a future with human beings in it.
Owl has so much growing to do, and there is so much to teach him. He’ll be with me a long time yet.
I made a good choice, to be yucca, all those decades ago.
I am grown now to the size of a single habitat, my veins-turned-roots have adapted to find water not even bots could detect, and my green fruit shelters and nourishes human children in a kind of vegetable womb. Earth’s native yucca was a survivor, like juniper, willow-shrub, sage, gourd, and prickly-pear, still here when a few humans returned to bot-mine.
Half a century ago, in a different life, I was a free-moving, locally-conscious human, like Owl will be. I lived in orbit around a star we named July. In my up-seasons, I worked in orbit maintaining the transpods, and in my down-seasons I worked as a harvester on the world we named Grasshome, after its primary vegetation.
Grasshome’s single continent is a vast plain covered with a grasslike turfbuilder that makes enough compatible proteins that humans can live there and find just about everything they need at a basic, sustainable level.
Other vegetation flourishes in depressions where rain gathers, but we haven’t found a use for those plants. We liked to go to those dells to gaze on life that was not grass, life with great algae-like lobes of deep blue-green and red bladders. Small, red, spider-like creatures with round, berry-like bellies roved in the dells among the blue-greens and sang in short whistles, tiny updrafts of pure sound, rising from a dozen different tones. We came away refreshed.
Do I miss Grasshome? Sometimes I remember its beauty. Other times, its cruelty.
A new volunteer from Grasshome is coming to see me soon. Perhaps she will become a Grandmother. Humans will have told her the science of the Grandmothers, of course. But as for our who and why, First Grandmother herself taught me. I share First Grandmother’s memory as clear and bright as my own. Here is what I will show this new one: The story of First Grandmother.
Humans had to leave Earth. There soon would not be enough oxygen to sustain big adult mammals, so the few surviving humans went to the one world finally found to be Earthlike.
But pregnancies failed on Grasshome’s wide surface and in orbit above, and none knew why, though they studied it until every woman was expert in the sad technologies of fruitlessness.
A placental plant met the woman who would become First Grandmother in a dream, as she lay at the lip of a blue-green dell, grieving for the child that had lived barely one month in her womb. She lay where her blood had flowed out, grieving and dreaming.
She saw her blood trickle down the dell and run among the succulent lobes. She saw a red bladder swell, enriched with her blood, and a tiny form growing in the red plantwomb. She saw the child emerge, a small, sturdy boy with red, succulent flesh. He smiled at her with blue-green eyes and called to her: “Grandmother!”
She woke and fled all the way back to Earth, where scoop-bot miners lived short, costly lives inside their machines. She craved a world where no blue-green algae sprawled.
By day she herded the solar-powered scoop-bots. At night, she crept out through the port-membrane in the crawler’s belly to sleep on the dry ground naked, training her respiration and heartbeat to be slow, to use little oxygen. She did not know why she craved to do so.
One morning she did not arise. Instead, she reached with her mind, touching the control pads with tendrils of thought, telling the scoop-bots to go hunt their metal prey.
She thought she was dreaming, until a bot reached its long arm under the shadow of the crawler and nudged her. She sent it away.
At noon of the third day, another crawler arrived. A suited worker emerged and stared down at First Grandmother in horror.
First Grandmother could see what the worker was seeing in her own mind. First Grandmother’s body was spread along the ground, its limbs flattened into lobes like great brown algae. Her head was a brown, leathery bag.
First Grandmother sensed something new about this worker. The woman’s memories swirled in First Grandmother’s dream. This woman had found love some nights ago, comforting love with another bot-herd.
First Grandmother cried out to the worker, between their two minds: Give me the child!
Even in her fear, the woman answered, “What child?”
I replied: The one you carry. It will die in you, as all bot-herd conceptions have died on Earth, even as on Grasshome. But it can live in me!
In the crook of what had once been her arm was a fat, dust-colored bladder. She willed the enclosing membrane inward, making a womb-sized opening.
The woman backed away to her crawler, and the crawler backed away from what lay in the dust.
If the woman reported her, would other bot-herds come in fear and torch her where she lay? Could she will herself back into her old being and escape?
No. She could not even imagine how. She felt life in the tiny creatures of the dry soil, in the sage, in the whining insects.
It was seven days before she felt the vibrations of a crawler’s feet in the soil.
The woman stopped beside First Grandmother and knelt. First Grandmother felt the little life in the sac of salty fluid as her strange new body enclosed it.
And that was the beginning.
Volunteers always ask, “Can I go back? Back to being what I am now?”
I let them feel the distance between my yucca self and what I was: No. You cannot go back. The children, they go forward. We stay. But our senses reach down to the deeps and up to the orbits. Grandmother Gourd, she can sense beyond the moon. Perhaps you will sense even more.
They go away and sit under the sun and moon, breathing inside their suits. Some don’t come back. But some take off their suits and lie in the earth, far enough away that our needs for soil and air and water do not overlap but near enough that we old Grandmothers can reach their still-local minds easily and instruct them what to do next.
They dream themselves and become Grandmothers. Workers come with embryos frozen far away around the star called July and drop hope into our bodies.
Once, some volunteers became Grandmothers on Grasshome, but their wombs released red spider-children that crawled to the blue-green dells and disappeared. So we are here, on Earth.
My little Owl stirs again. His name makes me imagine the warm body and round Earth voice of the burrowing owl. I picture an owl child that could live near me and not go away across the black sky.
A change is whispering along small arms, back, belly. Hairs are becoming…fetal feathers.
YUCCA! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Grandmother Gourd cries at me.
I can do it! Owl can live here. I see it now! This is what I have been wanting, what has been wrong with me. I want to keep my grandchild! I have been lonely for…for someone of my own!
He can have plenty of brain for intelligence. It doesn’t have to be big, just organized so…like this…neurons already eager for language are so very like those eager for the laughing song of the burrowing owl. My Owl can have human words in his mind and yet be…
YUCCA! OH, YUCCA. YOU GRIEVE ME. OH, YUCCA—STOP! That is Grandmother Prickly Pear, from the other side of the mesa.
The precursors of bones, ready to be hollow for bloodmaking…hollow them more for flightmaking. Yes, yes. The little vestigial tailbone…no longer vestigial but growing, cell by beautiful cell.
YUCCA! STOP! YOU MUST STOP! STOP! Seven Grandmothers wail at me, their terrified thoughts like wind howling from the mesas around me.
They will send their bots to scream at me, but they won’t hurt me. They won’t risk harming young Owl. They cannot stop me.
I ignore them and dream a warm, brown, feathery child who will sing laughter and share with me the joy of flight through dawn air, who will burrow beside my roots with his bride and raise his own young.
The Grandmothers have stopped screaming.
A shadow falls across me. I have been dreaming Owl, and I did not sense an approach. It’s the new volunteer. She kneels. “Grandmother Yucca, I have come to thank you.”
What? I let my Owl drift in sleep, and I turn my mind to her, the new one. Her hair is as prematurely gray as mine was when I left July forever. But she is strong. She will do well.
“Thank you for my daughter, still on Grasshome. You were her Grandmother, many years ago. Now I have come, with her embryo in turn.” The woman’s mind shows me a small cryo-bot parked beside her.
I am struck with awe. This woman has raised her child and will give herself for her child’s child.
She whispers again. “I cannot tell you, I have no words…my daughter…”
I see her memory. I see the moment when the transpod dropped gently to Grasshome, when she held her child as it roused from slowsleep. The little girl was about three years old, and I had sung words into her, sung her parents’ faces and story into her.
The young mother whispered her child’s name. “Summer Yucca.” They named her after me! The young father touched the child’s hand.
The child stared up at them. “Where is Gramma Yucca?”
The mother’s eyes filled with tears. “She is far away, on Earth. Because she is there, you have come home to us.”
Oh. Her joy hurts me! How can I take that from the ones who wait for Owl? Yet how can I give him up, my Owl?
Here, now, in the dust of Earth, that young mother, now grown gray, whispers one more thing. “I will be Grandmother Sweet Yucca.”
She stands to go.
I had forgotten how much love can hurt.
Wait, I call to her mind. Will you do one thing for me before you put down your roots?
“Of course, Grandmother Yucca. Anything.”
Up the arroyo behind you, in the southern bank between the roots of the eldest juniper, there is the home of some burrowing owls…there are new eggs…
Two years and many storms have passed, and we now have enough riches, enough power, to send Owl home. He has no feathers. He has young arms and legs that flex and thump, fingers that tap and count, lips that move along with the words I sing into him, strong lungs that breathe the oxygen-rich sap I secrete for him.
Tonight, I am again singing stars into his mind.
Owl’s sleepy thoughts query: When can I go to the stars, Gramma Yucca?
Soon, my grandchild. Soon.
I also have another pod-womb filled, something no other Grandmother has done, two wombs at the same time. Two years is far too long a gestation for a small owl, but not too long for this one, my Sage. Her soft, feathered limbs took only weeks, but her brain—that I am singing slowly, carefully. What will she be? Human? Bird? Other? She stirs. Ah. Sage calls out, not to me, but to her brother.
Owl? Where are you going? Where are the stars?